Rebuilding the Hokies: The Future of the Running Game

This is the first of several commentaries and film reviews associated with the Sun Bowl and the resulting state of the Hokie football program. I had a pretty solid vision for what I would be writing about after the game, until Mark May and Lou Holtz decided to shoot off their mouth about the state of the program. For those of you who may have missed it, or have not read Joe's response, here is the ESPN segment again.

"They used to be a good football team offensively when they were physical up front on the offensive line and they could run the football, get five or six yards on first down. They've lost that identity." — Mark May

My reaction was much more subdued than the overwhelming outcry from HokieNation. In fact, if this statement was made on January 1st, 2013, it would be accurate. That's why there was a large overhaul in the offensive coaching staff. During the 2011 and 2012 seasons I often lamented that the offense had lost any sense of identity as the staff mindlessly chased the hot offensive concept of the week. The defense had suffered through a series of down seasons, mostly resulting from a four year drought in defensive recruiting where many top recruits were lost or washed out of the program. The true effects of the downturn were hidden somewhat by Bud Foster's unique scheme and a group of stellar ball-hawking defensive backs, but it was clear in 2011 that the Hokies were a teetering program on the verge of falling back to the middle of the pack in the ACC.

Fast forward to the publication date of this column and here is the reality as I see it today. For a running game to be dominant, you must have a terrific offensive line. Starting with the hire of Jeff Grimes, the last 12 months have seen significant improvement of Virginia Tech offensive line philosophy, blocking fundamentals, and execution.

I will make a bold statement. The Virginia Tech offensive line is significantly better today than the offensive line that paved the way for David Wilson's record-setting rushing season in 2011. Wilson's fantastic athleticism generated yardage between the 20's, but that group's lack of fundamental precision was exposed as the offense struggled in short yardage and goal line situations without the trickery of the inverted veer. Danny Coale's catch aside, the Hokies inability to run the ball against Michigan exposed the poor fundamentals of the Curt Newsome-lead group time and time again. Then, in 2012 without the presence of an elite running back, the poor offensive line fundamentals were showcased for the entire world to see.

Let's take a look at a variation of a goal line power zone play from the 2012 Sugar Bowl versus a similar play in the 2013 Sun Bowl. Here, we have the Hokies running an outside zone against Michigan. Take special note of right guard Jaymes Brooks.

00:00:58–00:01:06

Brooks has to reach block the three technique defensive tackle for Michigan (three technique meaning that the defensive tackle is aligned on the outside shoulder of the guard.) Brooks has to take a flat step to the right, and gain leverage on the outside of the tackle and turn his pads. Brooks takes a solid first step, but fails to finish the block by getting his head on the right side of the tackle, effectively sealing him inside. Then, Brooks' feet go dead, and the defensive tackle crosses his face and closes off the cutback lane for David Wilson. Eric Martin also gets blown up, and it wastes a stellar reach block by Blake DeChristopher and solid back side scoops by Andrew Miller, Greg Nosal, and Andrew Lainer. Two guys who fail to execute solid fundamental blocks ruin any chance of success for the play. This was a common theme in 2011 and 2012.

Now, let's look at J.C. Coleman's touchdown run from the Sun Bowl. Note, this run is designed to be an inside zone, but the fundamental steps for the interior blockers is identical to the Sugar Bowl play. Let's start with the formation, defensive alignment, and the blocking assignments for the play.

As this is inside zone, the goal is to successfully reach an interior defender, and then influence an edge defender to stretch wide to keep contain. That creates an ally on the interior where the back can explode through the gap. Here, right guard Andrew Miller has the difficult assignment of reaching the three technique defensive tackle, in this case five-star super freshman Eddie Vanderdoes. Laurence Gibson has to turn the outside linebacker to the outside, and David Wang has to reach the nose tackle (who is eagled to the strong side). Derrick Hopkins and Sam Rogers will lead through the bubble that should form if Miller and Gibson execute their blocks and the nose doesn't cross Wang's face to cut the play off in the backfield. Let's watch the play and freeze it to see how each player executes their block.

00:59:01–00:59:17

If you freeze the play after each lineman has completed their first step, you can see how much the fundamentals of the Hokie offensive line.

First, notice the uniformity of each lineman's feet in the picture. Each player has opened their hips and taken a perfect zone step to their right. The symmetry is beautiful. Wang has successfully beaten the nose tackle to the play side gap and has his head on the outside. Miller has gained outside leverage on Vanderdoes and has sealed him to the inside. Gibson didn't influence the outside linebacker, so he has driven him to the outside. Both Hopkins and Rogers are perfectly aligned to create a wedge in the resulting lane. Now, watch the play again and focus on Wang, Gibson, and Miller's footwork. Every player's feet are moving and stay engaged with their blocks. Coleman slips into the end zone for perhaps the easiest touchdown he has ever scored.

It is easy to single out one play from two different years, but I encourage you to go back and look at some of the film against good defensive lines in 2011 (Clemson, UNC, and Michigan) and compare them to the film against UCLA or Alabama this season. Grimes (and I am sure a ton of hard work by the starting offensive line group) has improved the fundamentals of the blocking execution of the Hokies ten-fold. On January 1st, 2013, David Wang was a bunny-hopping, dead foot guard who I didn't expect to be a starter in Grimes' zone blocking scheme. Caleb Farris struggled as a pass blocker and struggled to get shotgun snaps to the quarterback. Laurence Gibson was a talented prospect who had yet to get an opportunity to prove himself on the field. Andrew Miller was coming off a serious ankle injury, and Jonathan McLaughlin was an unheralded former East Carolina recruit who didn't factor into any immediate rebuilding plans. When that group took the field versus Alabama, each player was starting their first game at their current position. To watch Wang get 15 yards down field on a veer dive, or Farris to crack back on a UCLA defensive lineman on a screen, or watch Jonathan McLaughlin hold up against the best pass rushing linebacker in the country, is really exciting. The film clearly proves that this group is a far superior unit to previous Hokie offensive lines, and the foundation of a strong running game is terrific effort and coordination on the offensive line.

Nevertheless, the personnel at running back prevented Scot Loeffler from truly exploiting the improvement up front, and the line was good, not dominant. The line must take the next step and not just be solid with executing assignments Trey Edmunds was miscast as a dive back in some of the veer option schemes that Loeffler featured early, and as the offense started to transition to sets that were more conducive for his success (and as he got healthier) his play improved, but he was never fully comfortable at tailback. The Sun Bowl game plan, which was more heavily focused on using Carlis Parker on jet sweeps, Jerome Wright on the veer, and Logan Thomas on inverted veer instead of using J.C. Coleman as an every down back, didn't change after Thomas was injured. Loeffler continued to rotate tailbacks, feature Parker on sweeps, and use other smoke and mirrors to cover up Leal's lack of ability as a runner. I think Loeffler understands that the running back position isn't strong enough right now, and the heavy recruitment of Marshawn Williams, Shai McKenzie, D.J. Reid, and Tabyus Taylor (all significantly larger than Coleman and Mangus) shows that the Hokie staff wants to find another star workhorse running back. Note, Loeffler developed Baltimore Ravens Bernard Pierce, a 6-0, 215 pound physical power back while at Temple. If the offensive line takes the next step, and another running back can be counted on to carry the load with Trey Edmunds, the Hokie running game will return to its former glory.

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Comments

Don't forget the problems the o-line had last year giving Thomas a shotgun snap that didn't require him to bend down and get it, effectively interrupting his ability to read right off the snap.
Go back and look at film an see just how many times he had to get the ball off his shins.

Danny caught that ball.

Friends don't let 5 star friends commit to UVA.

I have inside info. - Whit

I don't think Thomas was taught to make any reads post snap last year anyway soooooo...

"I like to hit a home run early" ~ Whit "knows how to create a Buzz" Babcock

Thanks French. I always reserve judgement of our games until I read yours and Masons reviews.

"Sure, I've been called a xenophobe, but the truth is, I'm not. I honestly just feel that America is the best country and the other countries aren't as good. That used to be called patriotism." Kenny Powers

I was going to wait, but even a arm-chair QB like myself could say that the game was terrible.

Which wallet is yours?

The one that says "Bad Motherfucker"

Grimes is quietly building a monster line.
Plug in a beast like Marshawn Williams and our running game will be something to be feared.
All will watch this, and to all opposing teams: Let no joyful voice be heard....

Fortune Favors the Bold

If you really want to know what Grimes can build look at the current Auburn O-line. He has to get some credit there right?

"Sure, I've been called a xenophobe, but the truth is, I'm not. I honestly just feel that America is the best country and the other countries aren't as good. That used to be called patriotism." Kenny Powers

Well pointed out detail on the footwork of this OL unit. Clearly Grimes is making headway. Consistency and fundamentals taught with clarity breeds excellence. Next year should be at least as good and most likely better - we just need some RBs!!!
I look forward to VT making Mark May eat that commentary - I'm putting plenty of Tabasco on it for him when the day comes....

Pain is Temporary
Chicks Dig Scars
Glory is Forever
Let's Go Hokies!!

Tobasco? Can't we make him eat ghost peppers instead? Much more painful....

Just another gut-wrenching, can't breathe, I lost my voice, not now, did that just happen, just gimme this one, Virginia Tech Saturday

My anus tightened a bit when I read "Ghost-Peppers". I like spicy food and they taste great, but I was wishing I could wipe my ass with a snowcone when the fire started.

Which wallet is yours?

The one that says "Bad Motherfucker"

That is the funniest thing I've read all day! Well played sir!

in Fuller we trust

That is so FUNNY but unfortunately it is also VERY TRUE!!!!!!!

I'm just glad he didn't have a gif for that

“When life knocks you down plan to land on your back, because if you can look up, you can get up, if you fall flat on your face it can kill your spirit” - David Wilson

"We are better than we think, but not quite what we want to be" - Nikki Giovanni

what no snow cone?

That Ghost pepper....It'll get after ya!

There are few things that I hate more than cliche sound-bytes that are misapplied. Thanks for exposing the ESPN poser-haters, French.

I hope Grimes keeps up the good work, so we can say to Mark May and all the others...

00:00:10–00:00:18

DW often makes the wrong cut and misses holes that develop. He still does it. He just has incredible speed and quickness that works against less than elite college players. Agree fundamentals have changed for the better. We still need backs that can follow the blocks.

#Hokies

That's what Beamer the Younger must teach -- nay, drill into -- all our backs coming into next season. Patience.

No, I *don't* want to go to the SEC. Why do you ask?

Ding ding! Our zone blocking scheme is predicated on making the right cuts. That's how Alfred Morris has had two 1,000+ yard seasons with the 'Skins.

In Beamer & Co. We Trust #Livefor32 #DecadeofDominance

And why Ryan Williams is still one of my favorite Hokie RBs ever.

No, I *don't* want to go to the SEC. Why do you ask?

Viva el "Lil Sweetness!"

I support Coach Frank Beamer.

VT '10, Born & Raised in the 804. Hokies, Keydets, Army Black Knights, NY Giants, NY Rangers, and ATL Braves.

I felt that Jerome Wright showed patience and made the right cuts during the game. Plus, he's a big load to take down. He deserves a shot in the Spring.

ChicagoHokie

French do you have any insight as to who the workhorse back will be? I assume Williams has the upper hand as he is healthy and coming in January, but from the film you've seen who looks to be the best overall running back?

“These people are losing their minds. This is beautiful.”

I heard that Horse-on-a-Treadmill has some years of eligibility left. But I head rumors that he is more trained pony than workhorse. Heeeyoooo!!

Which wallet is yours?

The one that says "Bad Motherfucker"

I resent this. Here, take a look at me and my stablemate pulling 4 and 1/2 tons and tell me I ain't no stinkin' workhorse

Brought our lunchpails, son. Notice our blue collars.

HOAT, I love you, but your collars are black. Your halters are blue.

Sorry.

I'll go be a pedantic bitch somewhere else now.

You expect a horse to know the difference?

We're just lucky that outside of a normal horse's areas of expertise that include beer and fillies, HOAT also knows treadmills and Hokie football.

I wholeheartedly agree, he is stinkin'.

Danny caught that ball.

Friends don't let 5 star friends commit to UVA.

I have inside info. - Whit

So where do you rate Edmunds talent wise ? I'm just a fan, without real insight, but he never really impressed me this year. Where is he on the list of Hokie TBs? He was our best option this year, but will he be the best option next year or would one of these kids be a better option? Seems like if our O-line improved so much, he'd would have a better year. Not saying he'd have record breaking year, just better than it was.

Talked to Curt and he said that Brooks pancaked a guy and graded out at 100 for that play. J/K

Awesome analysis really appreciate it!!!

Yep. Just hope Jake Schrum doesn't get hired as the AD at Virginia Tech. After hiring Newsome to be EHC's head coach, I am convinced that there isn't a more incompetent boob in college administration.

Viva El Guapo

Maryland's come pretty close recently...

No, I *don't* want to go to the SEC. Why do you ask?

There was a time when the backs had to know the blocking assignments and were required to follow the blocks come hell or high water and not take liberties. This helped to develop trust between the line and the back and also exposed who was not doing their job creating accountability. With this young stable I think we need to go back to that style of coaching to help their development.

I know the line improved significantly, but wasn't run blocking at least somewhat of an issue for this group?

"Go Hokies!" - Thomas Jefferson
@HaydenDubya

This season was about building a foundation. Coach Grimes likely used simplified game plans and focused on the proper fundamentals. Everyone getting off on the snap count. Utilizing the correct technique on every snap. Keeping a hat on hat until the whistle blows. None of those things were happening in 2012. This season, with the exception of the ECU and Pitt games, they were getting it done. If you watch every snap of the UCLA game and check the running plays, I challenge you to find five missed assignments by the offensive line at the point of attack. Tackles came from skill position players missing blocks, not getting a back side scoop on a linebacker (which 4/5th of all D1 OL will struggle to do) or the 8th man in the box made the tackle. In the 8th man scenario, that is where you have to have a special running back to win that one on one battle. The lack of a top back is amplified on the goal line.

There are two areas for improvement besides upgrading personnel:
1) Dominance is getting 4-5 yard push and dumping the interior defensive line into the laps of the linebackers, or on the stretch plays, getting off double teams quicker and getting to the next level.

2) Communication- In the cases where there were busts, most appeared to be in blitz pick up. In a couple of critical situations (especially the final sack against Boston College), there was confusion with the pass protection calls. With all five guys as starters at new positions in a brand new system, I am sure that their line calls (if there are any in a pure zone blocking system) were simplified. Now, in year 2 with four starters returning (five counting Benedict) and now guys like Conte, Smith, Teller, Arkema, Shuman and Osterloh with a full year worth of snaps under their belt, the communication should be even better.

I will be very interested in how Grimes replaces Miller. Andy Bitter discussed how Wyatt Teller has the most promise of the linemen who didn't play a role this year, but Teller spent the entire season at tackle. I can't envision him being moved inside with Smith, Benedict, and Shuman all having experience there. At the same time, after a season of learning, will he just flat be better? Could he challenge Gibson and Benedict at right tackle?

The second issue hinges on the quarterback battle. Andrew Ford is a lefty. If he wins the spring quarterback battle, that means that the RIGHT tackle will be protecting the blind side. I know some guys can switch back and forth, but I found it much easier to "post" (gain leverage by making strong initial contact with the pass rushers inside shoulder and force them to take an outside pass rush angle) on the left side. Will McLaughlin be switched, and if so, will be comfortable?

Viva El Guapo

So if I'm reading this correct, the overall lack of a running game came from less than elite RB play, the OL not quite dominating the line of scrimmage, and skill position blocking?

"Go Hokies!" - Thomas Jefferson
@HaydenDubya

Isn't that all of the running game?

You're forgetting the chainsaw.

running chainsaw

1) Lack of an elite back, although I think that Edmunds was underutilized. He has more upside than many backs that have had special seasons at VT (Cedric Humes comes to mind.) Loeffler didn't lean on him enough for long stretches.

2) Skill position blocking

The offensive line play is solid. If Ryan Williams or Kevin Jones is the tailback, they have monster seasons with how the group performed this year.

Viva El Guapo

I expect we lean on Trey a lot more this year no matter who is under center. I don't really know why he wasn't utilized more this year other than maybe that Loeffler was drooling over LT's potential

"Go Hokies!" - Thomas Jefferson
@HaydenDubya

Remember, Tre Mason and Bernard Pierce both had 1000 yard rushing seasons under Loeffler.

Viva El Guapo

I don't know if the mix can be put on SL or not, because of the prevalence of the read option in the offense.

I always felt LT called too many read option keepers. Big question is why. Clearly no evidence and no inside information but I felt like he didn't trust Trey on the run or the pass, though he seemed to use the pass to trey more as the year went on. I also felt that Trey got better at being patient and finding better holes as the season went on, but it still didn't seem like he went to Trey more on the read option. Not sure what the numbers would say there.

50/50 split. 4.1 to 2.1 ypc for Trey, LT respectively

IMHO not only were other teams trying to tackle and rough up LT, but they were successful in baiting him into running with the ball on the option

Perhaps it wasn't a lack of trust in Trey as much as LT not realizing it was the surprise keeper that goes for 10 - 25 yards 50% of the time that defenses really feared.... so a 25/75 split LT / Trey with one out of eight runs going for significant yardage to a fresher 260lb QB who had more room to get started downhill. So Trey with a 4 ypc and Logan with a 5-10 yard average.... would have led to a much more effective offense. (clearly i have no idea what the ypc would actually be but I'm pretty sure the principles are correct)

Season is over so hate beating the dead horse. I really think both these kids are gonna be studs at the next level. A freshman with not that much RB experience pulling a 4.1 ypc average this year? Best way for teams to get him down is to go at the ankles. As long as he continues to develop fluidly, more strength, more moves... this kid will end up a 6 1 225lb back with a ton of speed, ton of quickness and an ability to made defenders worry about catching him. Saw the potential more on the screen plays than other runs but I think we'll see a much better overall running game next year. I expect the DL OL competition in spring to be pretty interesting and hope to make it down for that spring game.

To be fair to LT, sacks cut into his ypc average quite a bit, unless you found info that removes sacks from the equation. Not a bad point though, I'd beat an old lady with a stick to know what some of those playcalls actually were.

An old lady? Don't know that I'd take it that far.... small puppies, though, they're most definitely fair game. Does anyone know if Mike London has a dog?

Just another gut-wrenching, can't breathe, I lost my voice, not now, did that just happen, just gimme this one, Virginia Tech Saturday

I don't know but, he does have an Old Lady.

Danny caught that ball.

Friends don't let 5 star friends commit to UVA.

I have inside info. - Whit

I agree, the O-line is much better then the O-line that blocked for David. He would have had nearly 3,000 yards with a great o-line. If he had played for Bammer he would have scored every other time he got the ball.

Touchdown Tech - Bill Roth

Excellent analysis! Definitely helps smooth over the post-season "ughs" after watching the UCLA game.

I'm looking forward to seeing the OL competition with Smith, Conte, and Teller added to the mix. Maybe we'll be able to rotate the OLs on a much more regular basis in 2014.

While appreciate loyalty and Shane's contributions in the recruiting process, I believe we need to get a running backs coach that has experience at the position and preferably NFL playing and/or coaching experience. Move Shane to Special teams and let Frank focus on being a head coach.

Then which coach would you fire? There is a limited number of assistants that a team can have.

I don't think that's absolutely necessary. The RB coaching position is seen as pretty much the entry-level position on a college coaching staff. Besides, if they did move Shane, they'd have to fire someone else to make room for the new coach.

Agreed. Hite would say all the time that he taught them the playbook and how to hold on to the ball and then just let them run, because you can't teach a good RB how to be good. They just have it or they don't.

I don't know how true that is, but Hite coached a lot of good RBs.

Well, you can teach them aiming points, pad/hip level, reading blocks, etc. For the most part, though, that really is true. The elite backs just have something special about them (see RW, DW, etc.) that you really can't teach.

Hite is also one of those guys who doesn't give away "trade secrets" to the media. And doesn't talk much about himself. FWIW.

Ok French, I was about to give up completely, but that analysis makes me feel better and look forward to next year. Thank you.

"Eric Martin also gets blown up,"

That sums his VT career up in one short sentence. I'm sure he's a nice kid, but IMHO he was the single worst tight end to ever put on a VT uniform.

My faith lies with Jeff Grimes, but I wish he were the OC.....and the RB's coach.